Twenty five years ago today – on Tuesday 22nd July 1986 – the House of Commons voted to end child beating in schools. The victory for the abolitionist cause – by a single vote – came the evening before Prince Andrew’s marriage to Sarah Ferguson. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, an ardent ‘hanger and flogger’, ironically played her part in securing the abolitionist victory. She was entertaining Nancy Reagan at number 10, and did not vote.
But abolition had been inevitable since the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1982 that parental objections to their children being beaten must be respected. The Government proposed that parents should be able to opt their children out of school beatings, but teachers would be free to beat the children of those who didn’t object. The House of Lords threw out this daft proposal, and later amended a wide-ranging Education Bill to include a clause banning child beating.
When this came back to the Commons, 37 Tories, led by Robert Key, a sponsor of the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP), voted for abolition along with most Labour and Liberal MPs.
In 1979, when I became STOPP’s first full-time campaigner, the prospects for abolition seemed bleak. Margaret Thatcher had just become Prime Minister. Many of her MPs were looking for harsher punishments such as the return of the death penalty and judicial birching. It was not a good time to be advocating a liberal reform.
The teaching unions were universally in favour of teachers exercising their ‘in loco parentis’ role, arguing that teachers should have the same right as parents to beat children. The biggest teachers’ union, the NUT, was at the forefront of those wanting to retain child beating. But they tried to persuade the public that it was rarely inflicted.
The truth was very different. 32 local authorities published beating statistics, showing that more than 80% of secondary schools were beating children, and that getting on for a quarter of a million beatings were being meted out annually. This worked out at one beating every 19 seconds throughout the school year. Far from being used as a ‘last resort’, beatings were often inflicted for the most trivial reasons.
Every year STOPP published a dossier of incidents. Here are just a few examples of the legalised brutality that was being meted out to children in the 1980s:
* A 9-year-old epileptic girl was publicly beaten by her headmaster for whispering in class. As her classmates watched, she was struck three times across her knuckles with a three-foot long ruler.
* a 14-year-old boy killed himself with a shotgun because he feared being caned by his headmaster.
* A 15-year-old girl was caned seven times in one term for truancy.
* A 14-year-old boy came home from school after a caning with his blood-stained underpants sticking to his bottom
- A few days after his father died, a 9-year-old boy was caned for going to his father’s grave during school hours.
* A headmaster was convicted of indecent assault on three girls, aged 5,8 & 9. The prosecution said he “made up feeble excuses for smacking the children on their bare bottoms”.
The last case – and many others brought to STOPP’s attention – illustrate the chilling reality that some teachers were sadists who got sexual gratification from beating the children entrusted to their care.
The abolition of child-beating in schools was one of the most important social reforms of the twentieth century. A vile evil was expunged from our schools.
You can read a longer version of this article at http://blogminster.com/blogs/tomscott/